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Friday, Sept. 5, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Rise of new Roman empire truly amazing


LONDON -- There are only 86 more non-shopping days until the transfer window opens again on Jan. 1. You can almost imagine Roman Abramovich counting the days, like a prisoner awaiting release from jail.

Christopher Davies

Ten weeks ago nobody in football had heard of Abramovich. As we digest the events of a crazy summer it is probably fair to say that no single person has ever had a bigger impact on what Pele called "the beautiful game."

On July 1, Abramovich took control of Chelsea, a deal which set the Russian back £200 million ($360 million). In the two months since arriving at Stamford Bridge and the closure of the transfer window last Monday, Chelski, as they are tagged, has spent £111.4 million on 10 new players.

That works out to just under £2 million a day -- at this rate Abramovich, 36, will soon be downgraded from a billionaire to a mere multimillionaire.

Chelsea has spent £10 million more than the rest of the Premiership put together this summer. It has outspent all of Spain's Primera Liga clubs, while the £32.6 million Parma and Inter Milan received for Adrian Muto and Hernan Crespo is more than the whole of the Serie A invested in new signings.

Read that last paragraph again to fully take in the magnitude of post-Abramovich Chelsea.

There are, in effect, two transfer markets -- one involving Chelsea and one for the rest. Of the £111.4 million Chelsea/Abramovich has pumped into the sport in recent weeks, £51.6 million stayed in English football, £32.6 million went to Italy and £23.7 million to Spain, all to Real Madrid. Some loose change -- £3.5 million -- found its way to France.

English football -- indeed world football -- has never seen anything like it.

Unless Bill Gates suddenly decides he's a Tottenham fan, we are unlikely to see a single club making such a massive investment in such a short space of time again.

There are jokes about a man on a desert island finding a bottle and a genie appearing, granting three wishes. One is usually an endless supply of money -- no doubt Chelsea's two other wishes are to win the Premiership and the Champions League.

Given the money it has spent, it will be expected -- even demanded in some quarters.

Multinational corporations have traditionally become involved in football, though no one has ever given a club the seemingly endless supply of money Abramovich has pumped into Chelsea. If ever a coach had to succeed, it is Claudio Ranieri, and on the assumption a mediocre season would be NOT winning either of the two major trophies, the Italian will be looking for another job next summer if Chelsea falls short.

The unanswered question is: Why has Abramovich suddenly appeared in English football and rewritten the transfer rules? Why Chelsea? Why now? What are his motives?

Abramovich likes football but is not a lifelong Chelsea supporter -- it is unlikely he had photographs of Peter Osgood or Charlie Cooke on his bedroom wall as he grew up in Russia. If he loved football that much, why not buy Spartak Moscow or another Russian club?

He does not do interviews, so it is not an ego trip. Various theories have been put forward, the most intriguing that Abramovich wanted to raise his profile as president Putin starts to ask awkward questions about those who made such an incredible amount of money after the fall of communism in Russia.

While not suggesting Abramovich has done anything illegal, there are those who believe his current status in the world's most popular sport should ensure the Chelsea owner is well down the list of those whom the Russian government may want to talk to.

Abramovich is already an idol in Southwest London and while one day the full story may emerge, for the time being the Russian has been a welcome shot in the arm for football.

It is not only Chelsea which has benefited from his arrival. West Ham would not have gotten £12.6 million from anyone else for Glen Johnson and Joe Cole -- ditto Blackburn and Damien Duff.

Perhaps the defining transfer was that of Claude Makelele from Real Madrid. It is one thing to acquire the potential of Johnson from a first-division club desperate for money, but another to pry away a highly valued midfielder the Spanish champion did not want to lose.

Chelsea has suddenly become the biggest players in the transfer market, paying over the odds, but an extra two or three million causing no problems for the Abramovich-backed club.

English football hasn't quite made up its mind about the Russian. On one hand clubs such as West Ham, Blackburn and Southampton have been grateful for Chelsea's money -- on the other, even the Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds are wondering how they can compete with a bottomless pit of transfer funds.

At the other end of the scale, Kevin Kilbane became the 16th senior player to leave cash-strapped Sunderland following last May's relegation from the Premiership when he joined Everton for £1 million last Monday.

However, money does not guarantee success in any country.

Blackburn Rovers won the Premiership after Kenny Dalglish used Sir Jack Walker's financing wisely, but Inter Milan has spent as much as just about any club over the past 15 years, yet continually under-achieves.

Newcastle has splashed out £93 million, but has not been able to break the Arsenal/Manchester United duopoly.

Ranieri has the players, but does he have a team? And will he be able to keep established internationals happy when they are not in the side?

The Italian said: "Before Abramovich came the players were saying 'we need this' or 'we need that.' Well now we have this and that."

And plenty more, especially in midfield, where Geremi, Cole, Duff, Makelele, Frank Lampard, Jesper Gronkjaer and Emmanuel Petit are competing for four places.

Football logic dictates that any coach needs time to mold a team, though with such a huge investment Chelsea will expect instant results.

The smart money would still be on either Arsenal or Manchester United to win the title, but if Chelsea is trailing the big two come January another £60 million might be invested for the Premiership run-in.

GEORGE BEST was in a taxi going to Heathrow recently. He was chatting about the weather, traffic and other day-to-day things when the driver said: "OK, give me a clue."

"Manchester United," replied Best.

"No. Not enough," said the cabbie.

"Northern Ireland," offered Best, virtually answering the question he thought.

"Listen mate, I don't know what you're on about and I don't have time for your life story. Which terminal do you want?"

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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